The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of Vintage Clothes


This week, I’ve been mostly marking essays from my undergraduate module Origins and Developments of Children’s Literature. Actually, I’ve been mostly marking essays about C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) because the majority of the class are completely fixated on the book and want to write about it. Which is no bad thing really.[1]

I’ve done a lot of research about C.S. Lewis, particularly into in his use of landscape and the role that his memories of Ireland and his relationship with Ireland play in his fiction. I’ve given a couple of talks about his work and there was a brief time when I thought I might write my next book about his Narnia series. But then I got distracted by Victorian children’s books and the possibilities of archvies I’ve had to put Narnia aside for another day….

But I still get to lecture about Lewis and Narnia every year which is some compensation.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 though it was conceived of rather earlier. Lewis wrote to a friend in 1948 to say he was working on a children’s story “in the tradition of E Nesbit” and in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he notes that the image of the faun in the snow had come to him when he was a teenager. But the story is set during World War II and it bears the marks of its wartime setting throughout.

Several critics have noted the influence of rationing on the story. Judy Rosenbaum observes that the meal Lucy shares with Mr Tumnus

“is not, it would seem, a feast befitting a wondrous kingdom. Yet meals of this simple, hearty variety abound in Narnia. One reason might be that as Lewis wrote the Narnian Chronicles, England was still living under stringent wartime/postwar food rationing. Every English child would have savored reading about these meals.”[2]

But the description of the meal doesn’t just make it seem like a wonderful treat in the midst of rationing, it also suggests that there’s something very odd about Mr Tumnus. The meal he provides for Lucy is almost totally comprised of items that were rationed and were increasingly hard to come by. So, the tea may even hint that there is something sinister about Mr Tumnus. Is he a black-marketer? Does this luxury and abundance come from his alliance with the White Witch?

But the aspect of rationing that interests me is clothes rationing.

Clothes rationing  came into effect in Britain in 1941. There are numerous  blogs about vintage fashion that cover the topic. Lucky Lucille has a fantastic round up of links about different aspects of rationingand The History Girls have some brilliant resources, including a review of the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.  One of the best things I’ve stumbled across is a radio show called “Harry and Edna on the Wireless” which combines old-timey tunes with up-to-date chats about the vintage scene: this episode features an interview with Laura Clouting, the curator of the “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition, and historian Julie Summers (who has her own wonderful blog here).

Clothes were so strictly rationed that, as Laura Clouting points out, a new outfit was seen as something you saved up for, a ‘dream’ purchase for some future after the war ended.[3]


Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from


Clothes play an essential part in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – they help to describe character and they shape relationships between characters. The children enter Narnia through a wardrobe (which is full of fur coats and mothballs).

Pauline Baynes illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

illustration by Pauline Baynes

So, for the most recent lecture on C.S. Lewis and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I decided to focus on the role clothing plays in the text.


In the seminar on Lewis and Narnia, I put up the clothing allowances and the number of coupons allocated to each item and ask students to add up how many coupons their outfits would have cost them.

There are always gasps of horror and giggles as we realise how prodigal our attitudes to clothing have become. There’s usually an argument about why dresses should ‘cost’ more than trousers and why men’s shoes have to cost more than women’s shoes, regardless of the size. Most of this year’s group were either cutting it fine or well over the rationed allowance (wearing socks over a pair of tights was a particular extravagance). One student this year had an outfit that ‘cost’ 60 coupons – more than a whole year’s ration. And then there’s always the moment that the realisation sinks in…no more new clothes for a whole year.

Always winter, never Christmas.

Which makes clothes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all the more interesting.

Think about the wonderful new clothes bestowed on the children when they reach Aslan’s camp. Or think about the luxurious furs worn by the White Witch and the weight and warmth of the mantle she drapes over Edmund.

Clothes also reveal much about the characters in the story. For instance, Mr Tumnus’ dual nature is show by the contrast between his bare torso (his Pan-like wildness) and the red scarf muffling his throat (his essential domesticity).

In terms of rationing, we can look to the Beavers:

At the Beavers’ house, Mrs Beaver is busy sewing when the children arrive. Like the freshly-prepared meal that nourishes the children, sewing is a sign of a deeper trustworthiness. It’s a sign that the Beavers, unlike Mr Tumnus or Jadis, are frugal and are willing to make do and mend. Though they are Narnians, the Beavers adhere to the codes of food and fashion the children are familiar with from war-time England.[5]

And so to the wardrobe of war-time clothes…

When I visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum I found a bundle of knitting patterns. Some of them were terrible – things that could only be made for a joke, or for a post-apocalyptic horror movie where there’s no heating and fashion has been murdered in its sleep. But other patterns had the potential to pass as real garments and I planned to make a couple of them. The first one I made was a land girl’s pullover.

But then other projects and other archives grabbed my attention and I didn’t really think about the possible projects from the IWM for a long time.

Then in Autumn I heard that twin-sets were back.

I’m now pretty certain that this is a lie but the internet did a pretty good job of persuading me twin-sets were, indeed, THE thing to wear this winter. And I was pretty sure that Peggy Carter would be everyone’s idea of a style icon and I was certain that a twin-set would be just the ticket.

And so I turned to my notes and rediscovered this thing of magnificent and hideous beauty.


Striped Twin-set from Vogue’s 20th Knitting Book

Just look at those shoulders!

This striped twin-set is from Vogue’s 20th Knitting book. I don’t have an exact publication date but the advertisement for Sandisons Real Shetland Yarns printed to the right of the pattern makes reference to coupons so I know it was published while rationing was still in effect.



This issue and several other issues of Vogue were used in the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.

The original pattern calls for 12oz of Sirdar Super Shetland 3-ply in dark green and 3oz of the same in light green. After a bit of research[6] I found out there was approximately 140 yards to the ounce of this yarn. It’s unavailable now so I cast on in Mabel and Ivy’s Supersoft 2-ply (Prussian blue because green makes me look like I need a lot of sleep and a generous amount of rouge). The Supersoft is rapidly becoming my go-to yarn for vintage projects.

Because I hate seaming, I decided to cast on the back and fronts together and knit them as a single piece. This didn’t seem to affect the overall width of the cardigan. The pattern suggests that it’s for a 34’’ bust but there is a lot of ease and the shape of the body (increasing gradually in width from the waistband to the underarms) leads to a very generous fit.

The pattern instructions are here. The magazine is laid out very strangely so I’ve had to use several images to reproduce the pattern. If you follow them in order, all should be well.



Needles: I could not get gauge using the needles suggested in the pattern so I went down a couple of sizes. The ribbing was worked with a 2.5mm needle and the stocking-stitch worked with a 2.75mm needle.

Sleeves: I’ve had problems with the sleeves on vintage patterns before so I decided to add an extra half inch to the suggested length for the sleeves.

Buttonholes: The original pattern suggests adding buttonholes where needed as you knit but I wanted to try on the finished cardigan first before I decided how many buttons to use or where to place them. So I decided to add buttonholes afterwards as part of a buttonband. Once I had the cardigan finished I tried it on and marked where I wanted buttons with safety pins.

Button band: I don’t hate myself and so I decided not the follow the pattern for the buttonband (which suggests casting on six stitches and knitting back and forward until you have a strip long enough to face the entire edge of the cardigan). I picked up stitches with the 2.5mm needle and worked in K1P1 rib for 7 rows, adding button holes in the 3rd/4th row, before casting off in rib.

Shoulders: When I tried on the finished cardigan I realised that it was designed for someone with a serious addiction to shoulder-pads. As you can see from the photos above, it looks like it’s falling off my shoulders and I am losing the effect of that lovely high sleeve cap. I either have to invest in some shoulder pads or I will need to put a couple of stitches in the top of the sleeve to secure the sleeve cap in place and give the effect of narrowing the shoulders without having to rip back or fold the fabric. Will experiment and update.

Pocket Flaps: I haven’t made these yet – I’m waiting to see if I have yarn left over from the sweater before I do anything rash.

Next up – half a dozen other vintage projects including trying to cook from William Morris’s recipe file, knitting from a 19th century lace pattern for Glasgow University’s Knitting in the Round Project, and my part in Roehampton University’s bran-new Archiving Childhood Project. And making the jumper for this twin-set!


[1] I secretly yearn for the day when Maria Edgeworth is given her due as a clever, forward-thinking writer of children’s books and is the star of a whole batch of undergraduate essays. Though it’s hard when she’s up against Lewis in the module. Lessons about logic and managing the household budget just aren’t as thrilling as talking lions. Pity.

[2] Judy Rosenbaum. “Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (review).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 297-299. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. <;.


[4] Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from

If you’re more interested in the style than the history, I’d recommend Mrs. Fox’s Finery and Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage  which have numerous posts about vintage clothes, makeup, and hair which are very useful for all vintage enthusiasts and really just lovely to look at too.

[5] Though it is worth noting that the Pevensies are wearing fur coats when they arrive at the Beavers’ house. In WWII many fur coats were made of beaver-skin so I’m always a little curious as to what the Beavers really think about their fur-clad visitors.

[6] For ‘research’ in this instance read “creative Googling”

Sneaky peeks….jackets and skirts and shawls oh joy!

Today is rainy and miserable so I thought I’d cheer myself up with some crafting updates.

First up – progress on my Victorian walking jacket.

It’s slow going – I’m finding it hard to get the back of the neck to sit right and the problem with pinning something on myself is that every time I reach up to put in a pin I either stab myself or the whole thing moves around and I’m left taking random tucks. My method has been:  *try it on, squint critically, take it off, baste like my life depends on it, try it back on, wince, take it back off, unpick. Repeat from *.

I’m happy with bits of it. My embroidery has improved no end (considering I had zero embroidery skills at the start of the project, that’s not really very hard).  And the sleeves bring me joy. This may not look like very much to you but to me it is the pouffy sleeve of dreams (and of the late 1880s).

Authentic 1880s style

Authentic 1880s style – with a hint of my Mimi blouse by Tilly and the Buttons underneath

If I can persuade someone to take better pictures I’ll post better pictures soon. Once I’ve finished wrestling with the lining anyhow. At the moment, the lining looks like it’s making a mad dash for freedom. I had a mad idea of wearing it to the Roehampton graduation ceremony next week but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen…maybe the elves will finish it if I leave it out overnight?

Next Up: Vintage find of the week is this skirt kit.


Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds Skirt Kit

That’s right, a skirt kit, complete with lining and a zip and its own little sew-in label.

It cost me the princely sum of eight English pounds in a charity shop in Putney.  It’s a thing of wonder – mostly wondering where the hell it came from.  I haven’t been able to find out when Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds were producing these sort of kits or if there was a wide range of them.  There’s no company trading under that name now so I’ll have to do a but more investigating.  If anyone has any leads on skirt kits, please let me know!

This is definitely going to become a skirt though – I’m thinking a sort of Miss Jean Brodie style thing. The kind of skirt you can wear on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a basket of fresh bread and terriers on the front. Or the kind of skirt that you wear with thick boots and a scowl.

This past month, I’ve been taking part in a Terry Pratchett themed swap organised by Louise Hunt of Caithness Craft Collective and I’ve been busy getting a little package together for my swap partner.  I like listening to podcasts and audiobooks but I find I can’t use the sewing machine if I want to listen at the same time.[1] So over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a fair bit of knitting too – well, designing really. I’ve designed my first ever lace shawl.


Blocking the shawl…

I’m ridiculously pleased with myself about this – it brings elements of Estonian lace and English mesh lace together and it’s inspired by…well, I can’t reveal that just yet.  This is just a sneaky peek after all. I’m in the process of writing up my scrawls into an actual pattern that I will publish on this blog soon.


[1] My friend Jess once said my sewing machine makes a sound like a drunk person rearranging furniture – there might be something wrong with it but then again it’s ALWAYS made that noise so it might be OK.

Resolutions, Ripper Street and Tiny Toiles

This year’s new year’s resolution is to learn how to sew better.  I want to get to grips with hand-quilting, embroidery and dress-making.  In particular, I want to make some vintage clothes from old patterns.

This year sees the start of a new research project on material culture in children’s literature.  I’m taking a semester’s research leave to get started on a monograph and I’m surrounded by all things Victorian at the moment…books, catalogues, advertisements, cartoons…and so I decided that my first project of the new year should be something Victorian that ties in with my research.

Outside of the library,  I’ve been getting a regular fix of rollicking, romping, ripping Victorian entertainment through Ripper Street.  I know people complain because it’s not historically accurate.  I know that while it’s theoretically set in the late 1880s, there are all sorts of anachronisms and some things (like Jackson’s gun) appear WAY ahead of their time whereas other things (like some of the slang words used) are more than a little archaic.[1]

But I don’t care.

I don’t care because the whole thing is filmed in Dublin and I love watching to see if I can spot bits of the sets – Trinity College[2], the Dead Zoo[3], Dublin Castle[4]

I don’t care because the dialogue has a rhythm and a register all of its own that makes the world of the story unique.

I don’t care because even the small characters are brilliant and have their own little lives to get on with.

And mostly I don’t care because I adore the clothes.

The sleeves! The standy-up collars!  The skirts! The mad turquoise and orange palette that the third season rocked!  Everything Long Susan wears!

Behold her mighty sleeves. And those hats.



How I want to get a hat like that and stick it to the front of my head like a mad Victorian unicorn…I want to sit in a room wallpapered with gold and teal peacocks and snark at anyone that comes near me in an inferior get-up…

And so when the latest (and maybe last?) season of Ripper Street came to an end I decided that what my little heart desired most was a jacket like Long Susan’s.  Preferably one that I could actually get away with wearing in real life without small children pointing at me on the street.

So – to research!

My recent searches of late 19th century periodicals turned up some beautiful pictures but sadly no practical patterns.  I found some nice modern patterns that are based on old designs but that felt a little bit like cheating (bear in mind that I will cheat heavily when it comes to actually making this this…there’s no way I’m going without interfacing or my sewing machine so cheating at the pattern stage too makes the whole thing dishonest).

Then I found The National garment Cutting Book of Diagrams from 1888.  It’s from exactly the right period and it is a many-splendored thing.  It’s full of wonderful, strange, outfits with big bustles and enormous sleeves.  I love sleeves.

I was tempted by some of the coats and the dresses – even the aprons looked like fun.

But I loved this jacket the best.

Ladies’ Street Jacket, The National Garment Cutter Book of Diagrams 1888

The pattern is…not what I’m used to.

Here it is in its entirety.


That’s it.  One page.  There’s no indication of how any of these bits fit together and the only advice for sizing is “use scale corresponding with bust measure”.  The description says ‘in ten pieces’ but only nine are drafted here.  Thanks Anonymous.  That’s so helpful.

After some serious moping, Karl suggested that I make a miniature version as a sort of tiny mock-up toile.  And so I did.

I traced over the pattern pieces as they are printed and cut the pieces out of some left-over quilting cotton (bad choice in retrospect because it frayed so much). It was a bit strange to sew sleeves that only had space for one or two pins.

Here it is.

Apart from the woejeous[5] stitching and the gammy[6] bits under the armscye I’m rather pleased with it. I did eventually (after some swearing) figure out where all the bits went and how the pieces fit together.

So, this weekend’s project is to make a full-size toile.  I have some canvas, a lot of pins and a heap of enthusiasm. And I’ll be following the (anachronistic) advice from Singer the whole time.


I’ll let you know where it gets me.

[1] Vanessa Heggie has an excellent blog post that points out that it’s not as far-fetched as it seems initially

[2] My alma mater…it doubles as a surprising number of buildings.

[3] For non-Dubliners, the Dead Zoo is like the normal Zoo but it’s full of taxidermied animals rather than living ones. It’s a fantastic place and there are many wondrous things to see, including a lion who obviously died of natural causes.  Probably the mange.  It’s the saddest looking lion in the whole world. He’s gone all baldy and sideways in his case and the moths have been at him but he’s kind of brilliant because you won’t see a manky old dead lion so proudly displayed anywhere else.

[4] Also where they filmed The Tudors.  That’s less exciting to watch because history has already given out the spoilers.

[5] A word I learned from my mother which means very bad, worthy of woe, grief-inducing

[6] Unable to function normally due to chronic injury or pain (in this case, pain caused to my fingers)

On Doilies

Today I discovered something that changed my life.  The scales have fallen from my eyes.  Mind blown.  Everything is changed, changed utterly.

I found out what doilies are for.

Doilies – [also  doileydoylydoyley, or even erroneously d’Oyleyd’oylie according to the OED] are weird lacy napkins-type things that look like soft tea-saucers.

My childhood was haunted by doilies – specifically by the doilies that adorned my Auntie’s sitting room – every table, every chair, every solid surface had one – one long runner-one along the back of every armchair, one small round one on the arm of each chair, one underneath every ornament on the mahogany shelf, one in every place where you might conceivably put down a cup or rest your hand. Even the lampshade had lacy etched glass that look (to my young and foolish eyes) like a see-through doily. The only thing Auntie hadn’t got was a doily-shaped ceiling-cosy.  I’m pretty sure she would have got one too if she knew where to buy them.

I always thought they were pointless – worse, they were a nuisance.  They were always slipping onto the floor and crinkling up and then they’d have to be taken away and washed and fresh doilies, stiff from the hot press[1] would be laid down.  I hated them.  And the doilies hated me too.  I only had to look at them and they’d get grubby.  Then I’d get blamed.  When it all was the doilies’ fault.  Or, really, let’s be honest, Auntie’s fault.  She bought the doilies in the first place.

But then, today while doing some teaching prep[2]: a revelation. Once upon a time, doilies had a function.

[In the 19th century home] coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust when coals were carried to each fireplace and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched.  The most common system of protection was to cover whatever could be cover, and wash the covers regularly. (Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), 10)

Doilies were part of a whole system for fighting against coal dust

 …housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ [flecks of coal dust] were part of their daily life.  Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt.  Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot […] tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours. (Flanders, The Victorian House, 70-1)

Far from being totally useless, doilies are exactly as useful as houseplants.

Actually, there seems to have been a craze for putting aspidistras and doilies together.


There’s even a doily on the cover of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying


I think I’ll do a post about Aspidistras soon.  Flora Klickmann had some very severe opinions about them.  Maybe I’ll even design a doily based on an aspidistra.  Probably not though.

If you do decide to make a doily, there are some really beautiful patterns out there.  As well as crochet patterns for home-decorating doilies like the Crocus Doily from JoAnn and  this giant crochet rug made out of t-shirt yarn, there are lots of patterns for knitted lace shawls like the gorgeous Queen Anne’s Lace Shawl from Men Who Knit, Jared Flood’s lovely Hemlock Ring Blanket, and these doilies from Yarn Over. I’m sure any one of them could be adapted to make a fine ceiling-cosy.

I’m still slightly afraid of doilies so I won’t try making one anytime soon.  Maybe when I buy an aspidistra and need some to stand it on, I’ll give it a go.

This week, I’ve been mostly working on winter scarves  (woo! Layers!)

This one is based on Rose Anne’s Braidheart pattern.  I made one ages ago in a dark charcoal grey and I wear it all the time so I decided to make something of a similar weight and style.  I’ve also started working on a shawl pattern from the book I found in the bin.   It took me a while to decipher the handwriting and make sense of the pattern but I’m getting there…slowly.


[1] A hot press is like an airing cupboard but in Ireland.

[2] Real work, I swears it on the precious.

Treasure, sharks and shopping

The Headington Shark AKA “Untitled 1986” by John Buckley


Maybe the only thing my sister and I have in common is our love of vintage knitwear.

Not that we have any taste.  I’ve just started reading one of Gail Carriger’s novels (rollicking romps across nineteenth century London with extra dirigibles) in which the main character has no soul and, therefore, no fashion sense…and I am a little worried about me and my sister.

We love horrible things.  Terrible, textured, awful things that could make angels weep.

On Saturday we went on a little adventure to Headington a town with a shark in a house and more charity shops than you can shake a stick at.   In the back of one of these shops we found a basket of old knitting patterns hidden away under a shelf.

We sat on the floor and went through them all, cooing over the hairstyles and sleeves and the poses and lamenting the fact that modern pattern books seem to only show models in weird and elaborate scenes – holding fancy drinks or laughing in an apple tree or digging a ‘flowerbed’ to hide the suspicious bundle at their feet.  I eventually settled on five of the patterns and went to the counter.


The woman at the counter looked at me, looked at the patterns, looked at me again and narrowed her eyes in vicious suspicion.

“You’re not going to MAKE these, are you?”

“Oh yes, I hope so.”



“Hrump.” This is the noise she made.  If you say it out loud, exactly as I’ve written it, you can make that noise too.  Don’t forget to frown as you make it.



I call this a successful haul.  I’m not totally sure about the shape of the blue 1980s(?) number but we’ll see.  You never know when the urge to dress up as a sailor-orphan will strike.  I’m totally sold on the flowery Tyrolean thing.  My sister has asked for this one for Christmas.


If she’s lucky, she might even get it.






The Modern Old-Fashioned

Sometimes my research doesn’t really work out. I was looking forward to spending some time in the Bodleian with some old books this week.  I’d ordered up some copies of Stitchery [the craft supplement for the Girl’s Own Paper] and a contemporary American periodical, The Modern Priscilla.



I was both delighted and disappointed by them both. While both publications purport to include patterns and tutorials for all kinds of needlecraft and fancy-work in reality it seems that readers were expected to read the informative articles about how to make these things and send away for the patterns by post.  So there weren’t nearly as many tutorials and things as I had hoped.  Most of the patterns are for tatting work (not among my skills) or Irish Crochet (the patterns are basically gobbledygook to me because I’m so useless at crochet).  I was really hoping to find a pattern for a shirt-waist so I could spend the rest of the week dressed up as a Gibson Girl and lounging under a sun-dappled tree with my correspondence and a badminton racket.

gibson 2

I admit I can’t see a badminton racket here. But I’m sure she has one. Or a croquet mallet or something.


Alas, I think my chances of finding some of those original paper patterns are rather slim. But what the publications lacked in useful patterns they made up for in bonkers advertisements and editorials.  I was kind of expecting this with Stitchery – after all it was edited by Flora Klickmann, matriarch of British craft publications, prolific author and expert at telling people what’s wrong with their furniture.


Flora Klickmann: not to be trifled with


But The Modern Priscilla is a whole new kind of bizarre. What were they thinking? In the first instance, the name makes no sense.

Priscilla  fem. proper name, from Latin, fem. of Priscillus, diminutive of Priscus, from priscus “antique, old-fashioned, old, ancient, primitive, venerable;” related to prior (see prior (adj.)).

So if “Priscilla” means “old” or “antique” then the name of the magazine is “The Modern Old-Fashioned” which is a bit strange. And the whole thing seems to strike this weird balance between the deeply modern (with all the fashion plates and advice on the latest gadgets) and the profoundly old-fashioned.  Look at the covers:


If anything, the cover suggests that this is the kind of magazine you share with your granny.  Or share with your granddaughter. And the pair of you will sit merrily making lace until you’re both half-blind. But then you turn the pages and all the crazy comes out in a rush.   The Modern Priscilla presents some of the most singularly unattractive patterns I have ever laid eyes on…

But the majority of the magazine is taken up with advertisements.  Astounding, wonderful, baffling advertisements including…

Detailed editorials on the health and beauty benefits of vibration!

Racy novels!

And she was a nice girl too...

And she was a nice girl too…

Terrifying tools!




Birds that sound like violins!



Craft courses!

Your friends will certainly be surprised...

Your friends will certainly be surprised…


But every now and then the adverts are interrupted by tutorials for the most useless and unnecessary trifles ever…



Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Once I’d stopped laughing (and for a time I was afraid I might never stop) I thought that there must be a logic behind it all…

Maybe the editors were being arch and ironic?

Maybe they were so snarky that they knew EXACTLY what they meant by “modern old-fashioned”… Maybe they were hipsters – effortfully quirky, painfully postured, sneeringly, ironically chic.  Maybe this was a blackly-comic and subversive publication that, while presenting itself as a nice little guide to managing your household and embroidering every available surface with flowers and ducks, was in fact a dark howl of enraged domesticity. If a nice lady decorates things then surely a really nice lady decorates all the things!  Pile on the chintz!  More ruffles!  More cross-stitch!  More useless and delicate items for the home!  Make whisk-brush holders, lacy shelf-edgings, doilies for every available surface.  Above all, decorate yourself and any small people you happen to be in charge of.

Though, actually,  probably not…

So, in honour of Mrs. F.L Merritt and the ladies of The Modern Priscilla I give you a rescued vintage pattern for a Crochet Rose from the Coin Handkerchief…

Crochet Rose

As this is the first time I’ve ever made something in crochet, I decided to test it out in big yarn to get the hand of things.

It was a lot easier than I expected though my stitches are a bit squiffy.  I will get hold of a wee delicate little crochet hook and see if that makes a difference. Who knows…maybe I’ll be able to surprise all my friends this Christmas with coin hankies…

Land Girls and Coded Jumpers

I wouldn’t have lasted long in Wartime Britain.

If the tea-ration didn’t finish me off, the lack of knitting patterns would have done me in.

The ministry of war feared that knitting patterns could be used to send encrypted messages so it became illegal to send knitting patterns by international mail.  So knitters were stuck with whatever patterns they already owned or had to make up their own patterns.  To compensate for this inconvenience, the war office got busy making up knitting patterns and encouraging people to knit for the services.

As a result, there are lots of knitting patterns from World War Two in the IWM archive.  Earlier in the year I spent a happy morning looking through three archive boxes full of them.  There are more boxes but not everything is accessible at the moment because of the refurbishments.

The vast majority of these patterns are for men and there are dozens of copies of Service Woolies for Men and Knitting for the RAF/ARMY/Delete as appropriate.

And nestled in among them all a single, well-worn copy of Weldon’s Service Woolies for Women


Imperial War Museum Archives Eph. C. Fashion (Knit WW2 & Postwar) Item number K05/2622 18 page magazine in good condition – No. 14 Pages 12-13 Land Army

It’s 18 pages long and it has about a dozen patterns for pullovers, gloves and scarves which are supposedly for the ladies in the forces though I bet a lot of people knit them for their own use too[1]. There are some vile things and some pretty nice things – it seems that whoever set out the patterns was quite fair-minded because from what I can tell there’s one decent item and one terrible item for each of the women’s forces.

I chose to make the Land Girl’s jumper mainly because it was one of the few things in my size but also because there’s a certain romance to the Land Girls.  The romance isn’t helped by things like Wartime Farm and the BBC show Land Girls which have convinced me that Land Girls lived in a jolly world of eternal summer and perfect hair.

I shouldn’t blame them.  This is the image of the Land Girl we are all familiar with.  The posters for the Women’s Land Army all show the girl in uniform[2] – usually a svelte, smiling, brunette standing charmingly in the middle of a countryside scene straight out of the world of Enid Blyton.

Look at her.  You can imagine her saying ‘spiffing!’ and lounging around in a sun-dappled cornfield drinking ginger beer. She’s all red lipstick and tight breeches and breezy wit. She rides on the back of a hay-rick.  She waves coyly at American G.Is and throws her head back when she laughs.  Sometimes she might lead a horse around a field – a nice horse, with ribbons in its mane, and a name like Clumper or Queenie or something.  She’s everyone’s summer girlfriend. And she is lovely.

Except I’m pretty sure it can’t have been like that. The photograph records in the IWM archive show an awful lot of rat-catching.  On the BBC WW2 people’s war archive some former Land Girls talk about thistle-bodging[3] and stone-picking and all kinds of hard, miserable jobs.  There are some wonderful photographs too.  These are taken from the People’s War Archive.  WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at

There’s loads of information on the Women’s Land Army at the National Archives and at the IWM.  I plan to do a lot more reading up about Land Girls in the next few months but I suspect I won’t find many stories about scampering around in fields wearing red lipstick.

In the meantime, I decided to content myself with some Land Girl-themed knitting and picked “A Ribbed Pullover in Two Sizes” for my first IWM project.  These scans are taken from a copy I bought online – sorry about any shaky words!


Khaki green is not my style so I decided to make this up in brown wool (Holst Garn supersoft – colourway: Conker).  I’ve knit with this yarn before and while it is kind of stiff and scrunchy in the ball it knits up into a fine, soft fabric.  The yarn is unwashed so it still has a whiff of sheep about it for that authentic Land Girl perfume.  Thankfully, the sheepishness soon washes out.  The grease helps stop the yarn splitting on the needle and has the added bonus of keeping your fingers nice and soft. The pattern calls for 10 oz of yarn but I haven’t a clue how much that is in new money so I ordered 300g initially to see where that got me.


First impressions

The first thing that strikes me about this pattern is how simple it appears to be.  There’s hardly any instructions.  The bit about ‘making up’, for instance, is barely a line long. The pattern author assumes the pattern reader is a) an experienced knitter and b) psychic.

While this pattern seems to have a gauge (yay) – it’s actually not a gauge at all.  It’s a cypher. The tension is ‘about 10 stitches and 11 rows’ but it doesn’t say to what…there is a rather unhelpful picture of the knitted fabric with the pattern

got gauge?

got gauge?

So I did a little swatch and got 10 stitches and 11 rows to 1 inch on 3mm needles (size 11) so I’m going to run with it and see what happens.

I cast on for the smaller size because I figure that ribbing is a fairly forgiving stitch and it will probably stretch or cling.  The sizes seem pretty vague anyway. I suspect this is a ‘one size fits none’ kind of pattern. Never mind.

Casting on

The pattern is simple and, if I’m totally honest, a little boring.  Nothing happens for rows and rows and rows. You increase a bit, then a little bit more, then a little bit more.  I am forced to count rows.  Karl gets excited by how often and how violently I smack the katcha-katcha on the head (mine’s shaped like a perturbed owl) and starts to mind it while I knit so he can smack it too.

Then all the excitement begins with the shoulder-shaping on the back.  Then there’s a MISTAKE!

It says you should end up with 36 or 40 stitches to leave on a spare needle but there’s actually either 46 or 50 stitches. So…either that’s a misprint or the pattern was never test-knit.

As I go on, and make the front I find MORE MISTAKES. The needle-sizes randomly change in the middle of the pattern.  The increases for the sleeves don’t work with the given gauge. The decreases for shaping the top of the sleeves make no sense.[4] So now I’m beginning to wonder if the pattern was ever test-knit at all.  Or even proof-read.

If they suspected that knitting patterns could be used to pass coded messages, I’m assuming that most patterns would have been checked by some official-type person.  How did these mistakes get passed over? Seriously, these people managed to crack the Enigma code – how could they not write a knitting pattern?

Then it clicked.

Maybe the pattern is a kind of test?

Maybe anyone making this pattern successfully would be immediately recruited to Bletchley Park on account of their genius?

Maybe I need to lie down.

After some strong tea and a sweet biscuit I calmed down enough to write out a new version.  Here: Land Girl Pullover


I am impressed by how economical this pattern is.  I bought 300 grams of yarn (6 50g balls with 287m / 314yds in each) but just used 4 balls.  I have one full ball, one almost full ball and a fair amount of odds leftover.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have broken into the fifth ball at all if I was a bit more patient and didn’t try to knit the neckband before I started the sleeves..  This is economy knitting at its best – this sweater is the kind of thing you can knit when you’re down to the last couple of stamps on your ration-card.[5]

The ribbed material means the garment stretches and clings for any body shape and fits neatly and warmly.  I’m pleased with the finished garment too.  I would like it to be a little longer but that’s a problem I have with everything.[6]

Now to put on some red lipstick and find a hayfield…



[1] You could make these items in whatever colours you fancied though you could get khaki and navy yarns off-ration if you solemnly swore you were making something for the forces so it’s a good bet pretty much everything knitted in wartime was sludgy green or dark blue.

[2] The Women’s Land Army is a bit of a misnomer.  Actually, it wasn’t a military organisation at all and while there was a uniform (green pullover, brown trousers, brown felt hat, khaki overcoat) a lot of the Land Girls never actually wore it.

[3] I’m not sure what this is but it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

[4] Unless you have arms like a gorilla…

[5] You had to use your clothing ration to buy wool or cloth.  Each person received 66 coupons for a year (cut to 48 in 1942, to 36 in 1943 and to just 24 in 1945).  An adult  jumper or cardigan ‘cost’ 5 coupons throughout the war.

[6] I have a long torso.  Like a dog, I’m tallest when sitting.

Knitting: on the train and in the bin

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

I like knitting while I’m travelling.  Random strangers come and start conversations about their grannies and their own memories of knitting.  When you’re knitting, you’re perceived as being total harmless and very friendly.  People seem to ignore the pointy needles for some reason.

I brought my knitting when I went back to Ireland this week.   As well as catching up with family and friends it was a time to rediscover the joys of feeding terns off the harbour in Galway, getting drenched to the skin in Ardgillan and watching seals off shore in Balbriggan.  And knitting on trains, planes and in cars.

Travel-knitting is always limited.  You can’t have anything too bulky or heavy.  Nothing too complicated or requiring millions of charts or different needles and yarns.  I decided to make socks – just plain, vanilla, snoresome ribbed socks.  With a boring round heel because I forgot to bring a yarn needle and so I couldn’t do my favourite Balbriggan Heels.

And it would have been utterly mindless except that the yarn rebelled.

The only word to describe this yarn is ‘snide‘. It slithers off the needle and wriggles its way out of stitches.  It splits if you so much as breathe on it.  I came to loathe it.  Knitting became a battle of wits – I’d try to sneak a few rounds before the stupid yarn knew what had happened and started its snaky, slithy, writhey dance of spite off my needles. I even lost the ball-band so I can’t reliably report what the nasty stuff is.  I found the ball-band.  Ironically enough, it’s called ‘Superba Harmony’ and the slidey snidey quality is because it’s 25% polyamide.  Won’t be using that again!

The trip wasn’t making for good knitting until Helen (TCD Medievalist and doyenne of Dublin crafting) gave me this.

It’s a book.  Or rather, it’s a manuscript.  It was found in the bin in the booksale room.

People donate loads of old books to the Trinity booksale.  Mostly from house-clearances, dead-men’s shoes, that sort of thing.  Sometimes there are real treasures because people toss out things without really knowing what they have in their hands.

Like this little gem.


It’s a diary that someone has repurposed as a knitting journal – there are notes for knitting patterns, crochet patterns, embroidery and dressmaking.  There are patterns, sketches and ideas.  Some are copied from magazines but others are clearly home-made and are called things like “May’s Tea-Cosy”.

It’s a fascinating manuscript with at least three different hands in evidence and you can see where two different people have used the same pages:

First and second hands

First and second hands

The first has a right-leaning slope, written in good black ink (now faded) and these notes relate to financial transactions and business.  Though there are some stranger entries including one saying


To Banish Mice Fumigate with pomegranate (like cucumber).  Hellebore (Christmas Rose).  Sulphur.


I don’t know about you but I’m fascinated by anyone who thinks that pomegranates are like cucumbers.

The second hand is far more sensible, left-leaning, uses blue ink, pencil and red pen for some titles.  The second hand doesn’t spell very well and tends to leave out letters or to ‘hyper-correct’ words like ‘lacy’ to ‘lacey’.   Most of the entries are written in this second hand.


The second ‘hand’


The third starts off quite round and naïve but becomes more assured and developed (and illegible) towards the end of the journal.

The third 'hand'

The third ‘hand’

The diary itself is for 1929 so, as Karl (resident palaeography expert and Viking enthusiast) reasoned, the earliest someone could have bought it is 1928 and it must have been in use from then until some point in the 1970s going by the notes on some of the patterns.  Many of the patterns are dated in the 1940s so I’m guessing that the diary was dug out and repurposed by the second hand some time during the war when the paper-ration came into effect.  The thrifty crafter then passed the journal on to someone else – I’m assuming a younger person because the third hand starts off with patterns for toys and patterns marked ‘for Dad’.    The third hand seems to have gone back through much of the journal making amendments to many of the patterns and adding notes such as


Not RED/WHITE unlucky in hopitals. A. says

The journal has been well-loved – parts have been carefully and painstakingly repaired and you can see where someone tried to replace some of the bindings and wrote over letters that had become blurred or faded:

It’s clear that this was a bible for at least two crafters.  It’s strange to read over these notes and speculate about the relationship between these crafters– a mother and daughter? Aunt and niece? Nana and grandchild?  Neighbours? Friends? I’m assuming that they are female going by the predominance of patterns for women’s clothing but I don’t know.  I don’t know where these people lived.  I don’t know their names.  I don’t know anything about them and I don’t know why such a lovely thing that was treasured for so many years ended up in a booksale, let alone in the bin.  I wonder about the travels this little book went on, the hands it passed through and the shelves it sat on before it was thrown out.

So now it’s travelled back to Oxford with me and will be part of my own (steadily growing) collection of vintage craft books and patterns.  I’m glad Helen salvaged it from the bin – I’m going to rescue as many of the patterns as I can. I’ll post one just as soon as I decode the handwriting.